On Burnout

Here’s a post for all the people who have hit the Burnout Wall, from someone who’s been picking a way over it since 2015. Yup, six years. I’m still limping down the far side, but I can finally say I’m over the crest. Really just in the last six months.

First, I know the tempting thing is to quit your job, and maybe your profession. Believe me, I know. I developed a rough-estimate price tag for a 6-month round-the-world tour for a family of 5 back in 2015, and my itinerary continues to get ever more fleshed out. 

Here’s the thing: changing jobs even within your profession is tiring. When you’re healthy, NEW is exciting and energizing. When your battery is completely drained, it’s just more work. And when you’re a new employee, you’re expected to be EXCITED and ENTHUSIASTIC and eager to connect and build relationships with all the new people you’ll be meeting.

Do you have the energy right now to be excited and enthusiastic? In all likelihood, all the new people you’ll be meeting will be virtual intros on Zoom. As someone who changed jobs in April 2020, I’m here to tell you it’s a lot harder to develop full-fledged relationships with people outside of transactional, get-this-thing-done meetings when you can’t have coffee with them. It’s not impossible, by any means. I did it at remote-first Linux Foundation a few years back–but we occasionally met in person at events. The majority of my member colleagues were in my metro area, too. And they weren’t all burnt out and battling conflicting impulses to reconnect and hole up as hermits the way all of your current and potential colleagues are now. 

Now, I’m not saying don’t look for a new job–the market’s great for seekers right now!–especially if you were already done w/your last one even before the pandemic, or if the pandemic has revealed unpleasant sides of your colleagues or employer you just can’t accept anymore. I’m just saying be honest with yourself about how much new energy learning to navigate a new organization and culture will require of you, and figure out how you’re going to find it. 

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Yesterday I saw this tweet: “If youre not rich, or have a wealthy spouse, how do you get out of tech…because im done” In the last few months I’ve also seen burnout threads about people going off to become auto detailers and mushroom farmers. Here’s the thing: there are very few professions that pay like tech does. If you have a family and corresponding financial obligations, shifting to a much lower-paying profession–especially if you don’t have a written-out plan for sharply reducing spending and managing whatever savings you have–is a pretty hard choice to make, one that is likely to bring all kinds of new and different problems. This is why I’ve just soldiered on through these past many years: why make things even harder, not just for myself but for my family? Why give myself less wiggle room, less margin for error? Have you ever noticed how many people are desperate to get into tech so that they can hopefully leave food and housing insecurity behind? I wish sabbaticals were a thing for more professions (honestly, why not all professions? Why not extend the acceptable use cases for FMLA?), but they’re not, so I’ve just muddled through. 

The special thing about this moment is that everyone is tired. Everyone is burnt out. There is unlikely to be a better time as a worker to nurse yourself back to health than now, when employers are most likely to be understanding–either because they actually understand and appreciate that their employees are humans, or just because (and remember this, remember you have power) the job market is really, really hot, and companies who are jerks will be seeing a lot of turnover and have a hard time hiring. The nature of this moment, honestly, is part of why I’ve finally made it over the crest. (BTW–Red Hat is growing and hiring for all kinds of roles right now.) Possibly the only better option for treating burnout is to just not work at all for a while–but only if that won’t cause you financial stress. 

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So how do you get through the day when you just can’t? When I hit The Wall, I found there were some activities I just flat out couldn’t do anymore. One was writing. There’s a reason my last blog post was nearly 4 years ago. Sometimes it would take me an hour to write a three-line email, and then I’d be exhausted afterwards. So I’ve found my way to jobs where I don’t have to write much. A former boss introduced me to the concept of a “thought partner”. On my current team, I’m fortunate to have two of them. I can start talking and they capture my thoughts. Or vice versa. I’m not having to think and commit something important to writing at the same time–just one or the other. (This is important for me–a big part of my burnout stems from perfectionism, especially about writing. Taking away the opportunity to block myself before I start and just getting stuff down on paper makes all the difference.) And then we tinker and iterate together. It’s awesome. If there are specific things you just can’t do, but others that you can, see if you can’t shift your job responsibilities a bit, or find your way to a new job, possibly within your current employer. 

Also–on that perfectionism thing–one of the things burnout has forced on me is ruthless prioritization. I’ve stopped feeling bad about the things that are at the bottom of the list. If they start bubbling back up to the top, I deal with them then. Better to do the important things reasonably well than half-ass absolutely everything. Other people likely learned this much earlier in life than I did. Better late than never.

Here’s another thing I’ve learned, and I hate it: we’re physical creatures. I hate it because I’ve happily lived most of my life as an embodied brain, the meat sack mostly being a distraction from more interesting intellectual pursuits. Now, I won’t say I’ve done anything extreme like <gasp> taken up regular exercise; but I have gotten serious about a hobby that involves extended amounts of standing and lots of tactile feedback. It also absolutely doesn’t matter if I ever excel at it. In trying to figure out how to not be completely terrible at it, I’ve found my way to a couple of nice communities of fellow hobbyists, and a couple of coaches. Low-effort, low-stakes connections like that have been a good way of venturing out of deep isolation. But there’s absolutely no timeline or requirement for being good at it. Embracing mediocrity and low-impact puttering has itself been a big healing step for me.  

Getting outside and away from screens is also really good for your mental health. There are all kinds of studies that say so. Yes, that could be a 2-week backpacking trip off the grid in the nearest mountain range with peaks above 10,000 feet. Or it could be regular walks with your dog, and the occasional weekend trip to a completely flat trail that your 2-year-old won’t complain (too much) about. Vacation can help temporarily, but don’t let anyone tell you it’s a cure. It’s not. On the other hand, a regular habit of allowing totally unfocused mind-wandering mixed with absorption in a sensory activity is a good way of easing the strain on the parts of your brain you’ve habitually overworked. Over time you may find yourself making entirely new connections between things you never imagined belonged in the same brainspace at all. That’s exciting. You sprout new neurons. You begin generating emotional energy again. You start to heal. 

There are no quick solutions (Six. Years. Okay?). It’s hard. But this is the rare moment when you, your colleagues, and your boss are all likely in more or less in the same boat. You can resolve to give yourself grace, and as much as you’re able, to do the same for others. Find a thought partner you can limp along together with, if you can. Hug your loved ones. Hug a tree. Breathe.

We’re missing more than half the picture

I was at an elementary school science fair last night. There were several volcanoes, a coke & mentos experiment, some plants grown in various conditions, and so on. As behooves a Silicon Valley school, perhaps, one kid looked into what materials block WiFi most effectively. (Note to self: aluminum foil is not the best material for wrapping your laptop or your head in.)

But there was one in particular that really stuck with and saddened me. It looked at boys’ and girls’ perceptions of traditionally “gendered” occupations, specifically whether they thought of a man or a woman when given the name of the occupation. The experiment was conducted by surveying the student’s peers, so mostly 9 and 10 year olds.

The results were fairly predictable, and probably pretty reflective of the actual occupations’ current gender balances. For better or for worse, boys and girls largely agreed on the makeup of those occupations.


Careful examination, though, will show you that in every case–whether the occupation tends to be male- or female-dominated, the girls were slightly more likely to assume that the opposite gender could or would be found doing the job.

There was one profession, though, that showed a very noticeable perception gap between boys and girls: tech worker.

  • Slightly more than half of the girls thought of a woman when they heard the profession. That’s huge. That bodes well for the pipeline problem, right?
  • But almost 80% of the boys — 9 and 10 year old boys, living in Silicon Valley, many with one if not two parents who are tech workers — assumed a tech worker would be male.




When I shared this on Twitter, a couple of people suggested the boys were responding to the reality around them. But no one had an answer for why the girls weren’t responding to the same reality.


All of this suggests to me that parents are doing a fine job of telling their daughters that girls can be anything they want to be (and for now, at least, the girls are buying it). But maybe not such a good job of telling their sons that girls can be anything they want to be. And guess who will likely be the gatekeepers of high-status, highly paid professions as these kids come of age?

Granted, it’s a lot to put on a n=29 survey…but as an indicator, it’s concerning.


Books I Read in 2015

I wrote a post like this at the end of last year (here), which has unexpectedly (to me, at least) turned out to be one of the more popular posts of the past year. This year, several of the books I read weren’t all that great in themselves, but they’ve spurred me to delve into new topics more deeply.

Once again, I’ve managed only one work-related book in the past year: In Search of Certainty, by Mark Burgess (@markburgess_osl), but this is one book I’ll whole-heartedly recommend. Mark is a proponent of promise theory, which describes a non-deterministic way of approaching and directing complex, dynamic systems. In Certainty, Mark draws on very basic physics and mathematics principles in the early chapters to establish an understanding of the myriad factors that destabilize systems and the countervailing forces that generally keep them going in spite of their inherent fragility. From there, although the primary focus of the book is designing for eventual outcomes in information systems, there’s also an interesting exploration of the psychology and philosophy of being such a designer–of how hard it often is to let go of micromanaging each process or transaction–and of designing human teams along similar lines. I’ve had the pleasure of also getting to know Mark personally in the past year; he’s a man of wide-ranging interests, a novelist and a painter as well as a scientist–and they all show up in the course of the book: economics, psychology, neuroscience, and more. The tone is conversational and a broad humanism underpins everything; the overall effect reminded me quite a bit of my childhood favorite, the BBC series Connections. A wonderful, immersive read.

I’ve been dabbling in home cheesemaking in the last couple of years, so one day my husband ordered for me The Science of Cheese, by Michael Tunick. It’s a very technical book, and not one you really read front to back. But for someone who’s been following recipes blindly, it’s enlightening to understand how each of the major variables (fat content, heat applied, culture type, aging process) contributes to directing a blank commodity like milk into the nearly infinite array of different products that exist in the world.

Rubens_Honeysuckle Bower.jpg

How many accessories does your head need??

I never liked the 1600s. The fashions in Europe were hideously unflattering, the art overwrought, and they spent way too much of that century killing each other over theology. But in the last year I’ve also come to accept that it was also the century that shaped the national boundaries, institutions and legal frameworks that largely characterize our world today. It saw the advent of capitalism and hand-in-hand with it, truly global imperialism. I bring this up because of the next 2 books…


Strange New Land: Africans in Colonial America, by Peter Wood, is a book I picked up on the basis of an interesting Slate article covering slavery in 1600s North America, and how it got relegitimized and codified around race (as opposed to religion) after mostly dying out in Europe during the middle ages. It turned out that the Slate article contained all the most interesting bits, so I’d recommend skipping the book and just reading the article.

Invisible China, by Colin Legerton and Jacob Rawson is mildly interesting as a travelogue of the ethnic-majority borderlands of China; the authors go slightly beyond the standard backpacker circuit of those areas, though if you’ve traveled in any of those regions, much of it will seem familiar.  Unfortunately it falls far short of its intended exploration of China’s approach to constructing a multi-ethnic society. The authors very lightly touch upon the “melting pot” vs “mosaic” debates that were held when the Republic was founded in 1911, but without much explanation. More recent policies regarding minority groups are discussed, and although the authors don’t make any such allusions, there are clear parallels with U.S. history–notably with regard to Native Americans–and contemporary debates around minority rights and the evolution of our national character. There’s a deeper history, however, which Invisible China never touches on: the way that border regions and their native peoples, especially in the western half of what is now China, became formally incorporated into the Chinese state during…the Qing Dynasty in the 1600-1700s. (Interesting related article here.) I’ve now got a number of books in queue about Qing policy with regard to Tibet and Central Asia in particular…timely given that China seems to be returning to that playbook in its current foreign policy.

1491, by Charles Mann is a book I’ve already recommended to a number of friends. It’s an excellent survey of recent discoveries and debates in the field of Pre-Columbian archaeology. I’d read articles here and there on many of the things touched on in the book, but others were completely new to me. Mann is a science journalist who’s been on the Pre-Columbian beat for a long time, and a compelling writer.

As always, I consumed a number of historical novels, most of which simply passed the time. But I have to recommend The Moor’s Account, by Laila Lalami. It’s a retelling of one of my favorite adventure tales of all-time, that of Cabeza de Vaca and his 3 comrades, who were shiprecked in Florida in 1527, and over the course of 8 years, made their way across what is now the southern U.S. to Mexico City. Three of the four were Spaniards, and made formal depositions about their experience to the government of New Spain. The fourth was a Moorish slave, who therefore had no official voice. Yet there are enough hints about his real role in the others’ accounts to support this novel, which is beautifully written and very true to the original sources.

Finally, I closed out the last few days of the year reading Skeletons on the Zahara, by Dean King, while lounging in a cabana on tropical beach. It’s another tale of shipwreck and privation, perhaps even more harrowing than that of de Vaca and co. In this case, a group of New Englanders foundered off the west coast of Africa in 1815 and spent several months enslaved to various Berber families wandering the Sahara, eventually getting ransomed by a British official residing in a trading outpost in Spanish Morocco. The ship’s captain, formerly a strapping 6-footer, weighed 90 pounds at the time of his ransom. Two of his crew were closer to 40 pounds. The book unites accounts published by the captain, one of his crew members, and the British official, into a well-written non-fiction narrative.

What stands out from your reading this year?

Reflections on Armistice Day

I’m just off the plane from France, where I combined the OpenStack Summit with a family vacation. As we landed, the American flight attendant explained to the plane that it was Veteran’s Day in the U.S., which means that we thank our veterans for their service. I was bitterly amused.


In Europe November 11th is Armistice Day. It celebrates the day peace was made at the end of the “War To End All Wars”–WWI. When I lived in the Pas de Calais, where most of it was fought, it was still living memory for old folks, a somber day of wearing black and visiting graves, and remembering the horrors of that time, and being thankful for peace. I found it horribly ironic that this woman, who clearly had no notion of the history of this particular date, felt she was positioned to teach half the plane about it. Continue reading

On Success and Happiness

Robin Williams died today. Normally I don’t give much thought to celebrity deaths—what about all the other people who died today? is my usual unvoiced response to the expressions of sadness that promptly pour out on social media. But this one struck me for a few different reasons.

Much of my generation of Americans grew up with Williams in his most goofy and manic role, Mork from Ork. His later roles, even the relatively serious ones, continued to be driven by the manic motormouth compulsion that first brought him fame. They were leavened by an increasing humanity, but it was clear that giving free rein to his frenetic free association was what really energized him. I had the opportunity to see him live twice—he lived in Marin and would occasionally test out new material at a smallish club in San Francisco—and his barely contained energy, which would grow over the evening as he got going, was practically a force of a nature that swept everyone in the room along with him. It’s hard to imagine Williams surviving, yet alone thriving, in any other profession. Watching him live, I became convinced that Mork the alien was the real Williams, and that he spent much of his later years trying to figure out how to be human. His more touching moments on screen typically had to do with realizing and articulating a failure to be what other characters needed his to be. Continue reading

Rant Addendum: Radical Deperimeterization

This is part 5 of an occasional series. The initial post is here.

At the end of my marketing rant a few weeks ago, I suggested that corporations might need to reimagine their places in the universe in order to be effective in the new marketing world order—not as central sources of information, but as minor nodes in a much larger network.

I know, I know. That’s kind of a big blow to the corporate ego. But let’s be honest, with few exceptions, potential and even actual users of your products just aren’t that into you. They may like your products just fine because they serve a useful purpose somehow. That’s a different thing than being into a “brand” in itself. But so what? Everybody talks about customer-centricity and solution selling, right? So what really needs to change?

Well, almost everything about how a typical corporation runs, really. Continue reading

Some Formative Sources of My Ideas About Technology

I was musing recently about things I’ve read or otherwise consumed that have stuck with me over the years, things that I keep finding myself coming back to as I work through various ideas about technology innovation and adoption. I thought I would share some long-time favorites–mostly because I think they’re inherently interesting, but also because it might provide some context for other things I write on this blog. Links are provided for the curious. Continue reading

A Bit More on Brand and Communities for Techies

This became part 3ish of a five-part series, part 2 being the Geek Whisperers podcast linked to below. Read part 1 here. Read part 4 here.

The Geek Whisperers were kind enough to invite me to join their podcast a couple of weeks back to talk about vendor-hosted communities as part of the marketing & sales mix. They just posted the results today. We wound up talking more than I expected about “the B word” (Branding). I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised by this, since the whole point of the blog post that kicked off the G-W connection was that certs and these types of communities are built to foster brand loyalty.

Nonetheless, I found this sort of funny since the Branding department tends to be the bane of every product marketer’s existence. They make us spell out things like “Cisco Unified Computing System” or “VMware vCenter Operations Manager” in everything we write even though it makes for really awkward sentences and nobody in the real world ever refers to the products that way anyway. This is a very typical case where official Corporate Branding actually gets in the way of a product acquiring and building on an organic identity within its user base. If your users fondly refer to your product–officially known, let’s say, as the Fortuna Unified Zazzle Zapper 3627–as “FUZZ3k”…go with it sometimes.. Continue reading

An Ode to C

I actually wrote this several months ago, before I started this blog. Two (really three) great but very different blogs posted this week made me decide to dig it up.


I took some C classes in my early 20’s.

It was mostly for the exposure. I had absolutely no call for anything of the kind in my job at the time, nor any plans to significantly alter my career path. And yet, they’re some of the classes that have stuck with me the most over the years.

Until then, my sole coding experience had been short BASIC programs to create silly graphics with quarter-inch color blocks on Apple IIes in elementary school. This was different.

Continue reading

Festivals of Light

There’s something that’s long fascinated me about the winter solstice: the uniquely human way we respond to it, and the universality of that response. Animals respond to the onset of winter either by migrating or by hibernating. Our earliest ancestors generally migrated too, following the animals and their food sources. But at some point, in addition to harnessing fire, they also learned to salt and cure meat and to dry and preserve fruits and vegetables in anticipation of cold, lean months with few sources of fresh food.

That bit of technology is pretty extraordinary in itself, if you think about it: being able to live semi-independently of what nature readily provides at any given time. And then, people all over the world saw a need to determine in a very precise way when to expect the changing of the seasons in order to further assert control over their own circumstances. Astonishingly accurate astronomical and calendar traditions arose independently everywhere in the world, from the northwest corner of Europe to the Middle East, China and India and throughout the Americas, stretching back over 4000 years.


Humans are pretty amazing. What’s even more amazing is how much we tend to think the same way, regardless of our wildly diverse environments.

Continue reading